The Magical Book

When I was a second grader, my school held a fundraiser to fill some empty shelves in the school library. Rather than just asking parents for money, the school had each child select a volume from a table filled with new books, take it home and ask Mommy and Daddy to puhleeeeze buy their sweet little offspring a book. After reading their new acquisition, the child would to donate the book to the school library so it could be enjoyed by all.

As class 2-A herded past the book tables, my ADHD brain locked on to a book wearing a bright yellow dust jacket with the title in bold red letters:100 Pounds of Popcorn by Hazel Krantz.

The cover illustration closed the deal: Four kids making a huge mess while popping mass quantities of popcorn. The random messiness made those kids seem more like me, and the fun they were having made me want to be more like them.

Sold.

However, when the day arrived when we were to donate our books, it became apparent that I hadn’t been properly briefed on the etiquette of school fundraising, for I committed the mortal sin of refusing to surrender my book to the librarian.

I’d already developed somewhat of a reputation by then (in 1962, ADHD was still known as “Rotten Little Brat Syndrome”), so when I made a bit of a scene over the librarian attempting to steal my book, the case was automatically escalated to the principal’s office. I’d already spent so much time there that I wouldn’t be surprised if even today there’s a chair in the waiting area bearing a brass name plate in my memory.

When my case came up on the principal’s docket, I stated my position in clear and certain terms: It was my book. I’d chosen it from the book table with my own grubby little paws. I paid for it with cash my mother gave me to buy a book. I’d even written my name inside the cover with a red pencil (though I don’t recall if I wrote it before or after they pressed me to donate it). I loved my little book, and the librarian couldn’t have it. End of discussion.

The battle escalated, as such battles are wont to do. When gentle reasoning failed, the principal hinted at the possibility of eternal damnation (being a Catholic school, they  could get away with that), and when all else failed, she pulled out the biggest weapon of all: a call to my parents. That threat almost worked, but one glance at my book’s cover renewed my resolve to endure any punishment required to win my case. After the threatened call, my father grudgingly agreed to buy a second copy for the library. He later extracted the price from my hide.

What drove me to fight so stubbornly for that book?

Reading 100 Pounds of Popcorn had revolutionized my eight-year-old life. Before that book, I thought everyone in the world was just like me. I had no idea that other families were different. In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz transported my tender heart to a world very unlike the one in which I lived.

To most, the Taylor family would seem unremarkable. A father, a mother, eleven-year-old Andy and his eight-year-old sister Sally Jean. On the way home from the beach, they see a huge bag of popping corn fall from the back of a truck, and being a moral, law-abiding type Mr Taylor tries to return it to its rightful owner. The owner isn’t able to retrieve the bag before it would spoil, and offers to let the Taylors keep it if they would like. Andy sets out to start a popcorn business with the help of his kid sister and several friends, and they all learn the hard way that there’s a lot more to selling popcorn than they thought.

Okay, so it’s a nice little story. How did that revolutionize my life?

The first time I read that book, I waited with tense anticipation for what I knew would happen. I waited, but what I expected never came. I read it again, just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Then I read it again just because I didn’t want to leave the magical world.hidden in those pages, a world  where Andy’s father never yelled at him, never threw things in anger, and never once hit his wife or either of his children. Andy made some mistakes and learned lessons the hard way, but his father never called him stupid or any of those other names I’d expected. And Andy never once had to stop and discern whether his father was drunk or sober and adjust as needed to avoid his wrath.

In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz gave me a most wonderful gift. A glimpse of a world where children were free to be children, to learn and grow and live with all the hope and possibilities they could handle. I couldn’t explain it then as I can now, but that brief visit to normality changed me. It awakened my ability to dream, to imagine, to envision a better world than the one in which I’d existed.

Is it any wonder I fought so hard to hold on to such a magical book?

When God started talking to me about writing for children and young teens, I didn’t want to discuss it. I didn’t want to go back and revisit the wounds of my childhood. A dear friend and mentor (and highly successful children’s writer) finally took me aside and told me that those wounds equipped me to write things that nobody else can write, not even her. She then gently but firmly kicked my backside and asked me to quit making excuses and start doing what only I can do. (Thanks, Nancy. I needed that.)

Shortly after I returned home from the conference where that discussion occurred, I spotted my ragged, dog-eared copy of 100 Pounds of Popcorn on my bookshelf, took it down and read it again, just as I’ve done hundreds of times before. And I remembered the magic.

And then I started writing for tweens and early teens—because somewhere out there, there’s a boy or girl who needs that magic.

Conquering The Vortex

vortexEvery now and then when I have to run into work after hours—just for a second, a quick in-and-out where you’d leave the car running if you weren’t paranoid about having it stolen—Sharon will say, “Don’t get caught in The Vortex” as I’m walking out the door.

And, I understand exactly what she means.

And, it often doesn’t stop me from getting sucked in.

But, at least she tried.

I admit it. I’ve got a nasty tendency to get sucked into things. It’s a product of my non-linear ADD brain chemistry. If you’re a linear person and you’re already shaking your head like my fifth grade teacher, let me just say that the ADD community forgives you. God loves everyone, even linear people. It’s not your fault. Seriously, it’s okay. We’re used to it.

Now, where was I? Oh yeah. The Vortex. Let’s take a peek behind the curtain at a possible “quick trip to the office” on a Saturday morning to reboot a problem satellite receiver:

9:50 AM: Arrive at office. Window of opportunity to reboot is from 10:00 to 10:06, so I have ten minutes.

9:51:00 AM: Log on to computer intending to check the errant receiver and see if it’s still misbehaving.

9:51:30 AM: Paper I left on keyboard reminds me I didn’t file my expense report, just as intended.

9:52:00 AM: Open Excel, pull receipts off the cork-board, begin entering into expense form.

9:54:15 AM: Realize I’m missing a receipt from one of my online vendors. Open browser, surf to their website.

9:54:30 AM: Promo on vendor’s home page reminds me  need to buy some USB cables. Click promo. Prices look pretty good, but can I do better?

9:54:45 AM: Staying on-task, I log into my account and send the missing receipt to the printer.

9:55:00 AM: While receipt is printing, browse to competitive vendor’s website to comparison shop.

9:57:30 AM: Competitor’s prices not bad. Try a third vendor just to be sure.

9:59:45 AM: Third vendor has best prices. Order a dozen.

10:00:15 AM: Discover why third vendor’s price is so good. They don’t have any in stock.

10:00:30 AM: Google USB cables looking for price as good as third vendor.

10:02:00 AM: How many cheesy discount cable places are on the internet? At least 3,437,294.

10:05:30 AM: Find better price, but product looks like poor quality.

10:06:00 AM: Click back to original vendor. Price doesn’t look so bad after all. Place order.

10:07:30 AM: Print receipt, walk down hall to network printer, right past rack full of satellite receivers.

10:07:45 AM: See errant satellite receiver’s blinking alarm light. Check watch. Say something neither edifying nor uplifting. Next opportunity to reboot satellite receiver is 11:00 to 11:06 AM.

10:09:00 AM: Back in office. Since I have fifty-one minutes before I can try again, I might as well get some work done. Finish expense report.

10:14:00 AM: Check email. Order confirmation says USB cables are out of stock, back-ordered six to eight weeks.

I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. You get the point.

The Vortex is one face of a multi-headed creature living inside the ADD brain. It can be an ugly face—A very ugly face—but before you go all condemnation on me, I have to point out that the same brain chemistry that supports The Vortex also supports another face, a beautiful face, a face that is a pure and wonderful gift. I call it The Elevator, because just as The Vortex pushes you down, The Elevator lifts you up.

The Elevator is the face of those wonderful spurts of creative energy that lead us to new inventions, new ways of solving old problems, and new ways of thinking, interacting, and managing our world. The Elevator gives us new stories to tell, or radically different ways of retelling classic stories that make them new again. The Elevator lifts us up to places where we can see things that nobody else has seen. A ride in The Elevator is one of the most exhilarating experiences a person with ADD will ever know. In fact, it is The Elevator that causes me to be a bit offended at the very term Attention Deficit Disorder. In The Elevator, ADD isn’t a disorder. It’s a gift.

The conflict here is that we can’t have one without the other. Remove the chemistry that enables The Vortex, and The Elevator becomes a sweet memory and nothing more. The price of our Elevator ride is The Vortex, just as the price of riding in your car is insurance, fuel and maintenance. We can’t remove The Vortex, but with a little help and a lot of work we can manage it.

Vortex Management

There are no magic check-lists that will keep your Vortex at bay. If there were, I’d be selling it and making a pile of money. You need to find what works for you, and when you find it do it with all you’ve got. Here are a few tools that have worked for me:

  • Understanding.

When I was diagnosed with ADD and began to learn about my brain chemistry and how it works, a whole lot of things about my life began to make sense for the first time. Once I understood that I wasn’t bad, just wired differently than the majority, I could begin to see patterns in my life, ways I’d adjusted and self-medicated and learned to cope with the difference—and ways I hadn’t. This is an area that can be difficult to work on alone. You might need a coach, whether professional or amateur, to help you see yourself. Understanding how you’re wired will equip you to make the most of what God gave you.

  • Nudges.

What I’ve come to understand about The Vortex is that all I need to do to be sucked in is do nothing. In the scenario above, I was sucked into hunting mode. All it took to pull me out of that was a reminder. Understanding how easily I can be sucked in, if I had arranged in advance for a reminder that my window to reboot had arrived, I could have accomplished the reboot the first time around. All it would take is something as simple as an alarm on my phone, or listening to the satellite feed so the silence at the top of the hour would get my attention.

  • Proximity Effect

I’ve learned that there is a direct relationship between proximity and focus. In other words, the farther you are from the thing you need to keep in focus, the harder it is to maintain focus.

Duh.

In my office, I could neither see nor hear the offending equipment I’d come to reboot. If I’d chosen to pass my time working on something close to the receiver, the odds of forgetting the primary mission would drop exponentially.

  • Triage

My friends at Merriam-Webster tell me the word triage means “The sorting of patients…according to their need of care.” In other words, when you go to the ER with a sprained nose, the guy who’s bleeding all over the floor gets first priority. I use triage in my work every day, prioritizing broken equipment, technical requests and deadlines constantly. I’ve learned that a little triage can go a long way toward keeping me on-task and out of The Vortex. In the example above, I didn’t have to go into my office. I could have seen what I needed on the front panel of the receiver. If I’d never opened the office door, I probably would have done the reboot on schedule.

Management=Results

Imagine the scenario above with these simple Vortex management tools applied:

9:50:00 AM: Arrive at office. Window of reboot opportunity is from 10:00 to 10:06, so I have ten minutes.

9:50:30 AM: Stop at office door. TRIAGE: Is there anything in there I NEED to reboot the receiver? No. Don’t even go inside.

9:52:00 AM: Arrive at satellite rack. Observe blinking error light. Check other readouts. Check time.

9:53:00 AM: NUDGE: Patch audio from target receiver into speaker, so end of program will remind me to reboot if I become distracted.

9:55:00 AM: PROXIMITY: Error light on rack a few feet away catches my attention. I investigate.

9:57:30 AM: Error not a big deal. Clear error light.

9:58:00 AM: PROXIMITY: Standing near rack, Take out iPhone, check mail, browse Facebook feed.

9:59:00 AM: Bored. Fling angry birds at pigs to pass the time.

9:59:50 AM: End of satellite program audio reminds me why I’m there.

10:00:00 AM: Reboot receiver.

10:00:30 AM: Fling more birds.

10:03:00 AM: Check receiver. Reboot complete, everything is happy.

10:06:00 AM: Listen to satellite-delivered program on car radio while driving home.

10:12:00 AM: RESULTS: Arrive home and thoroughly surprise Sharon, who expected my “quick trip” to take hours.

If it seems a little too easy, that’s because you’ve never done it. It’s not easy at all, and there are days when it’s nearly impossible—but it will always be impossible if you don’t try. I’m not parroting that “You can do this if you’ll just buckle down and try harder” thing linear people are so fond of bashing us with. If I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me in my childhood, I would have squandered all that money long ago.

Here’s the thing: those linears are half right. You—and I—can do it. We just can’t do it their way.

Discover how you’re wired.

Find the way that works for you.

Then, meet me in The Elevator.

 

 

Catching Up

I’ve been a bad boy—a very bad boy.

I haven’t posted anything here in, like, forever.  Not that I haven’t had anything to say. Anyone who knows me knows that I’ll probably still be talking when I’m cold and dead in my casket (preaching my own funeral is sort of a fantasy goal of mine).

I’ve just been battling with a good old fashioned case of  “Overload meets ADD.” Here’s how it works:

  1. After discovering wonderful new twists in your plot while sleeping, your hyperfocus drives you to write that focal story until thirty seconds before you MUST leave for your Day Job.
  2. The need to eat forces you to keep up with your Day Job, even though you’d rather be writing.
  3. You get home exhausted and say to yourself, “I’ll write that blog post tomorrow morning when I’m fresh.”
  4. While watching a couple minutes of TV, you get a great idea for a blog post and add it to the list of great blog ideas you’ll write in the morning.
  5. While sleeping, you dream your storyline and “the boys in the basement” give you the perfect way to solve that little problem.
  6. Go back to number one. Rinse. Repeat.

I have a limited number of hours I can dedicate to writing, and when I get immersed in a story it’s way too easy to fall into perpetual I’ll-write-that-post-tomorrow mode. I keep making notes about things I should blog about, but I never find the time to write them. As the list grows, it becomes more intimidating and more difficult to dive into. Eventually the list takes on a life of its own and knocking it down to size becomes a gargantuan task.

In the name of catching up, I’ve gone through the list with the heart of an editor, ruthlessly cutting things that aren’t worth saying. The few items that remain are more manageable one bite. Here are a few of the items left behind that I want to get off the list, in no particular order:

Conference Bound!

Yes, in spite of a less-than-brisk economy, in less than twelve hours from this posting I’ll be on a plane headed to the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference at the Ridgecrest Conference center near Black Mountain, North Carolina (not far from Asheville).

I’m excited to be returning to Ridgecrest after missing last year, but it’s going to be a very different experience for me this time. I’m already agented, so I won’t be playing the mating game with agents this year. I don’t have anything that’s ready to pitch, so it’s likely I’ll dispense with fifteen-minute meetings altogether. This year it’s all about growing in the craft and honing my skills as a writer, enjoying the fellowship for fellow word addicts, and encouraging others while others encourage me. I look forward to reconnecting with old friends, making some new ones, and listening to the Lord’s voice whisper in my ear on Rocking Chair Ridge.

Look for a few posts from Ridgecrest during the conference.

Rooms by Jim Rubart

This is Jim’s debut novel, and saying it’s “really good” is like calling a woman in her tenth month of pregnancy with triplets  “really pregnant.” Rooms is phenomenal, and if you’re not among the bazillion people who’ve bought it so far, you need to go straight to your local bookstore, Amazon, or  CBD and buy it today.

I take a little bit of encouragement in the knowledge that when I won first place in the ACFW Genesis contest in 2008, Jim took second place.  I was recently told by a publishing professional who I both trust and respect that I have the potential to have just as successful a debut—one of these days, but not yet. Believe it or not, there is a downside to having such a successful debut. Jim’s set his own bar quite high, and now everyone’s expectations are huge.  Rooms will be a tough act for Jim to follow, but I think he’s up to the task.

Apple Loyalty: Gone in a Flash

Apple has done a some truly brilliant things in recent years, and the techie community has taken notice. More and more IT geeks are including a MacBook Pro in their personal arsenal of computers, largely because Apple’s OSX is a pretty user interface on top of BSD Unix, one of the grand old-timers of the computing world. One thing Apple does extremely well is user interface, and choosing to build OSX on the BSD foundation set the developers free to maximize that interface–it’s too bad MicroSoft didn’t do the same.  Add in the iPhone phenomenon—an operating system that’s a subset of OSX with another brilliant user interface—and mix in the way Windows-centric Enterprise IT departments have embraced iPhone as an Enterprise-level device, and even the most anti-Apple would have to say Apple is on a roll.

Then Steve Jobs had to go shoot his mouth off about the evils of Adobe Flash. We could tolerate the iPhone not supporting flash–after all, it’s primary purpose is phone calls, email, and a little light surfing (plus all those nifty apps). As long as there’s been an iPhone, the tech-savvy have understood why flash was forbidden–Apple wants to have total control of you, your phone, and what you can or can’t do with it. Flash would change all that.

Enter the iPad, an overgrown iPhone without the phone, a device with enough screen real estate to enjoy full-length video and full-fledged web browsing.

The problem is that many websites are flash-dependent, and without flash they’re hollow shells filled with nothing. Big Brother Steve Jobs says that flash is outdated and should not be allowed to live, and therefore Apple will not allow it on its devices.

It’s interesting that Microsoft says the same things about Flash, with one major exception—Microsoft allows users to make their own decisions and access flash-based web content if they choose to do so. Apple assumes all users are too stupid to think for themselves, so the collective thinks for them and “protects” them by crippling their devices. At the root of Apple’s position is the technical reality that everyone knows but Steve Jobs won’t admit—allowing flash on the iPhone and iPad would make it possible for users to access applications that haven’t been blessed by Apple’s gods.

Come on, Steve. Everyone knows the truth, and you refusing to admit that truth doesn’t make it go away.  You’re a control freak. You want to rule the world, one smartphone at a time, by limiting our choices to those you can control and from which  you can profit.

Fortunately, I don’t live in Applestan–I’m still an American and I’m free to make my own decisions. I won’t be buying an iPad unless there’s a major shift in Apple’s mentality, and when my iPhone 3G contract comes up for renewal later this year I’ll take a long, hard look at Android-based (Open Source) phones before deciding. Apple could have had me, if only they’d dropped the Borg collective philosophy and start treating users with a measure of dignity and respect.

Need a  Job? Here’s an Idea!

It’s been all the buzz recently, all those billboards and TV spots with unemployed Americans saying, “Mr. President, I need a freakin’ job.” No doubt, some of you are offended at the use of the word “freakin'” because you know the word they meant, and I’d have to agree that word is offensive—but not nearly as offensive as the notion that it’s the responsibility of the President of the United States to personally deliver a job to every unemployed American.

I’ve been through periods of unemployment. I get it, really I do, but it’s not the government’s responsibility to give you a job. It’s your responsibility. In every time of hardship, there two distinct groups of Americans—those who whine because the government’s not doing enough for them, and those who get off their cans, find something to do, and do it better than anyone else. They’re too busy working to whine.

The interesting thing is that the INAFJ website is itself an example of just that principle in action. While they promote a “movement” with vague buzzwords and hard anti-administration rhetoric, they’re also selling tee shirts for twenty bucks a pop. That’s a tried-and-true business model that’s been used over and over by creative entrepreneurs. Find a group of people who are upset about something, become their buddy, sell them tee shirts that speak to their peeve. Whoever is behind INAFJ (the web address is registered through a registration proxy to hide the identity of the real owner) has done exactly what wise unemployed people have done for generations. 

I’m sensitive to the plight of the unemployed, so it’s with the utmost respect that I say, “If you need a freakin’ job, quit whining, get off your freakin’ can, and find something productive to do.” Don’t wait for the job to come to you; get out there and find a need, meet that need, and meet it better than anyone else. It’s the American way!

And finally: A Personal Note to Jay Leno

Thank God you’re back on The Tonight Show! We’ve missed you terribly, and now that you’ve got your late-night legs back, you rock!

It’s great to see you experimenting with new ideas, even if they don’t always work, because you’ve not forgotten what made you successful. It’s a balancing act, but you’re balancing it well these days. Keep up the great work!

I really hate that Kevin is leaving, but not nearly as much as I hated Conan’s version of the show. 🙂

Writer Cycle, Cat Cycle, People Cycle.

Yes, I know. It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog entry. All of my writing time has been obsessively focused on two major priorities: sending out proposals for Inheriting Air (and I might add, sending out a manuscript or two) and finishing The Voice, the novel that made me a finalist in the 2008 ACFW Genesis contest for unpublished novelists. My goal (a bit unreasonable, knowing how slow the publishing industry can move at times) is to make myself ineligible to enter Genesis in 2009.

I just did an incredible thing, a step that’s never been easy for my brain chemistry to embrace. I’ve declared the first draft of The Voice to be complete. I’m around 12,000 words short of my target length, but the story is finished. The word-count shortfall will evaporate in the next draft, as I fill in some layers and accommodate a few things that I discovered later in the story’s development. I’m excited about The Voice; it has a great deal of potential. I just hope the final-round Genesis judges agree. The results will be announced on Saturday, September 20, at the annual ACFW Conference in Minneapolis.

I’d love to win, of course. I have a one-in-five chance, but even if I don’t come out on top, just being a finalist is a great honor and has already opened some doors for me (including a couple that I chose not to step through).

Now, I enter a different phase of the writing cycle. Difficult though it may be, I need to put The Voice away for a while, long enough to become emotionally detached from the characters and storyline so I can evaluate that first draft with a ruthless red sharpie. The detachment is critical; Not only do I need to cull the biological waste I might not see at close distance, I might have to hurt a character or two, or even sacrifice them on the altar of literary integrity. It’s hard to do when you’re still emotionally attached.

Tootsie

The Lovely Miss Tootsie

I have plenty of writing to do in the interim. As recently as yesterday at lunch with Sara I found an intriguing new story idea I’ll have to play with, I’m still trying to sell Inheriting Air, and believe it or not, the Lord has nudged me in the direction of trying my hand at short fiction for tweens (8-12 year olds). Yes, really.

We have a new member in the feline muse department of the Case household, an unexpected addition who insisted on adopting us during a recent run to PetsMart for food and litter. We left with a bag of kitten food and an avid consumer thereof who has given herself a name, Tootsie, by finding a hidden tootsie roll wrapper (God only knows where) and making it her favorite toy. Tingy and Marconi have come to tolerate her youthful exuberance, brokering an agreement that gives Marconi first dibs on the back of my chair and Tingy first dibs on my lap. Tootsie is a bold, fearless little four-month old tabby/calico mix (Tabico or Caliby, take your pick) and I’m sure she’ll be running the place before long.

We knew our broken hearts would eventually heal after Wookie’s death. We didn’t expect to have a new kitten as soon as we have–we were quite certain we weren’t ready–but Tootsie knew otherwise. Her playful presence and joyous embrace of life has brought us more healing than we would have imagined.

Tootsie is an unusually wise writing coach for her tender age of four months. She already distrusts adverbs and avoids them whenever possible, and has on more than one occasion looked over my shoulder and jumped on the keyboard to correct some errant bit of punctuation. That she has creative gifts in abundance can be seen in her choice of playthings. The entire world is her toy box, although she has not yet learned that everything that dangles is not meant to be swatted at by claw-equipped felines.  😯

Tootsie can by no means replace Wookie, Blondie, Buddy, or any of the other previous feline residents of our home. Each of our feline cohabitants is an irreplaceable individual, and to even consider trying to replace one with another is ludicrous at best. Tootsie represents the beginning of yet another cycle of friendship, a new entrant who has already carved out her unique place in our hearts. She’s carved a few special places on our hands, arms and legs as well. She hasn’t quite learned yet that a slight movement of the feet or hands while sleeping is not an invitation to pounce. 🙂